Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 33, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

The core revolt

Lau Siew Mei

Her mother stands on the landing just before the stairs twist to the left to go up. Her mother stands there facing her sister. Her voice is harsh. She screams silently at her mother. Stop it. Let her alone. Why can't you let her alone?

They were to enact the story of William Tell at a Christmas play. Her sister was William Tell, in green, her favourite colour, refusing to take his hat off to the tyrant, shooting the arrow at the Gessler apple. She played the wife, the mother of the shot-at son, the sacrificial lamb of a father's pride. She learnt her lines. They were few. Only four to be exact. Her sister told her, accenting the words in the right places, Say it like this. 'Gessler himself! The saints above!' And her voice pitched at the mention of the saints. She trailed the sibillants for emphasis. She aped her sister. Again. She practised the whole morning around the house. She would be accent-perfect. But Gessler the tyrant ruined the show. He said, Why am I always the villain? He took himself to the sofa and threw a fit. He lay on his belly and pummelled the cushion with his hands and waved his feet, up and down. They stood around him and laughed. Ha, ha, ha. And he wept and could not stop waving his feet and shrieking, so they made him the Chief of Police who finds the corpse, and he was happy then and sat up and wrote their names down in a small brown notebook with thin pages.

You are the Chief of Police, her sister said, who was the eldest of them all. You shall be the police with him, her sister told her. You shall be Professor Notorious, she said to the younger brother.

She swallowed her anger, for her wasted exhibition of accent-perfect talent, and accepted the role. Her sister said she would play the corpse.

They put it on that noon for the Christmas show for their two mothers. The brothers had one mother and they had the other. And they played it improvised. And the lines spat out of her mouth like it had been written inside her, the story, and she said, I see the corpse, and carried away with her own magnificence, she gave her sister's bottom a kick, as she lay there, dead and not dead, and she hopped out of the door which was open for they acted in and out of the house, and the out was the wings and the in the stage, and the two mothers sat on the sofa and laughed and clapped on cue. But her mother came after her, onto the stage. I saw that. Don't do that again. And she had her bottom spanked before the boys, before the other mother and she nursed her wounded self and sulked in the wings.

The corpse was found filled with a poisonous gas that was traced to the Professor's laboratory. They, she and the elder brother, clutching their pistols and notebooks, grabbed the Professor, after blowing up his door, and tied him to a chair. That was the end and the two mothers clapped and cheered as they bowed and bowed.

Her William Tell sister stands on the stairs. She stands sullen. Only the other night she had a dream that she was the Lost Princess on an open field and her sister shot at an apple half her size and gave it to her. She took a big bite out of the apple.

What did Mummy say? she asks her sister that night as she takes her bath. Her sister shrugs and soaps her armpits. She is perched on the edge of the white marble bathtub, watching her sister as she slides the bar of soap over her brown naked body and between her legs. The white foam catches at the tip, the nipple, the brown bud of the sister's growing breasts. She thinks, God, they are so big, and scrunches her shoulders to hide her flat chest with the tiny nipples like pin pricks. She stands and slowly manoeuvres her way around the tub, balancing dangerously. Her sister splashes water towards her.

I met this really cute guy, her sister tells her. At the bus stop. He wears a white uniform. I don't know which school he's from.

She listens. She is always listening as her sister tells her, of boys and puberty and love letters. She comes to a halt and sits down again, on the edge of the other side of the tub.

Have you talked to him? she asks.

He talked to me, her sister says triumphantly. He came up and introduced himself. He said he had seen me in class photographs of our school magazine.

Her sister twists the taps to give out more water. Her voice is muffled as she washes off the foam. She turns off the taps and suddenly leans close over her.

Do you think I'm pretty? she says in a low husky voice. She feels a peculiar senstation in the pit of her stomach. Her sister's naked breasts with her big brown nipples bend close to her face. Bare flesh and breasts. Droplets of water sliding off.

Yes, she says, and rapidly jumps off the tub. Her sister picks up the towel from the rail and wraps it around herself.

Her mother stands on the stairs. She thinks, Why can't Mummy leave her alone? She feels a warm softness over her left brow. She stifles a scream, reaches up her hand and feels against her palm an alive warmth, a moth. Panic seizes her. Moth warmth, moth darkness.

When she was eight, a moth had flown into her bedroom. A large lunar moth, bigger than her father's hand. She had screamed and mummy had come in, picked up a shoebox and with it she trapped the moth and pressed its life out against the wall.

What did you expect me to do? her mother had said when she cried out. You were afraid of it.

But she was more afraid now it was dead. Its warm life squeezed out, its brown essence staining her wall. She felt guilty, as though she'd been the murderer. Because it had been her screams which brought the mother, the all-wise, all-protective mother, to the rescue.

Well, it is dead now, her mother said and wrapped its corpse in a sheet of newspaper and took it away.

Her sister dresses herself in their shared bedroom. She lies in her pyjamas upon the double bed they sleep in and looks out at her putting on her makeup. Smell, her sister says and holds her wrist out to her nostrils.

It's very nice, she says. What is it?

It's Loulou. It's a Cacharel, her sister says. She makes the word roll in her mouth.

She does not understand what a Cacharel is, but her sister smells nice. Are you going out somewhere? she asks. Her sister frowns.

Do you think mummy would allow me to go out at this time of the night? she says with scorn.

She stays silent and eyes her sister as she transforms herself, bra and panties, and loopy jewels sparkling around her neck, diamonds in her ear lobes, rings on every finger, black panty hose and mother's high heeled shoes. She looks at her sister in the mirror as she admires the effect she has created. Blood sister, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, flesh decked in glittering jewels, in sweet-smelling powder and perfume, eyes ringed in black and lips vividly red. She swings her loopy necklace around like a silent screen actress, leans against the bedhead and drawls, Why don't you kiss me, darlin'?

There is a knock at the locked door. Mummy's voice. Do you have my shoes in there? Daddy and I are going out and I need them. Her sister vanishes into the bathroom through the connecting door, leaving the shoes behind, like Cinderella when the clock struck twelve. She picks up the shoes, as the Prince did, who found them on the staircase after his dream had fled, and unlocks the door.

Here, Mummy, she says and hands them to her.

When her sister returns, she has changed into her pyjamas. Move, she hisses and gives her a push under the coverlet. She settles herself in bed and then puts her arm around her waist and hugs her closer, What've you been doin' today, baby?

She tells her. Tells her all. From her morning breakfast to her day in school and the kids who were mean to her coming home on the school bus which she still rides, not being old enough according to their mother, to take the public transport like her sister.

You're nice to cuddle, her sister says, all round and chubby. You're better than a bolster.

Her sister falls asleep like this with her arm and leg around her. It is warm under the blanket. The room is dark. She thinks she sees a shadow upon the door. She strains her eyes. Could it be a moth? She closes her eyes and tries to sleep.

She dreams that a moth hangs upon her bedroom door, circled by white butterflies. She stands before them and the moth, through some dark will, commands the butterflies to attack. They flap at her throat, pulsing, soft. She backs, hands clutching wildly.

Her Mummy is scolding her sister. She has come home late from school. Where were you? Her sister takes an apple from the fridge and bites nonchalantly. Her sister is cunning, wise; she will make her mother laugh in a while. She can always get their mother to be her ally. They whisper confidences, words, secret words vibrating, which she cannot listen to. Her sister laughs when she demands to know what they have said.

We're not talking about you. So you can go away.

They sit at the table together and giggle and Mummy reads her sister's love letters, sheets of paper the boys have sent her, which she waits for at the mailbox, letters she is not to read, not to touch. She searches for them one day when her sister is late coming home and finds them pressed between the pages of her diary, in the drawer of the bedhead. She reads. She reads everything, including the diary. She has no scruples. She comes across an entry.

My sister is a pain. She is always showing off how smart she is. Every dinnertime, when Daddy brings up a topic for discussion, she is quick with her words and she argues so well, I have no time to get my thoughts straight. So I don't like to talk at dinner anymore and now Daddy thinks I'm not as clever as her. I hate her.

She stops reading. She is hurt. She puts the diary back in its place. She is guilty.

She doesn't know what to say when she sees her sister that night. She stays silent. Her sister is singing in the bath in the next room. She can hear her through the connecting door which is slightly ajar. Water splattering on the marble. Her sister's voice tripping along the lines of a Carpenter song. She curls up under the blanket and tries to sleep.

Her sister slides into bed a quarter of an hour later, turns her back to her. Night, she mumbles, and falls asleep.

She is alone in the open field.

Her mother is standing on the landing, before the stairs twist to the left, waiting for her sister to come down. Her sister is leaving to study overseas. She cries into the towel in the bathroom, the sudden surge of tears surprising her and her sister whom she has been watching pack her last minute essentials.

Well, you take care of yourself, her sister says.

The Gessler apple begins to rot. The William Tell story is never concluded. This is one play in which no characters know their lines.

There are no lines.

New: 18 April, 1996 | Now: 11 April, 2015